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'Red flags for November': Some voters in Georgia primaries frustrated by election changes

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UNION CITY, Georgia – Jessica Gibson has voted at C.H. Gullatt Elementary School in Union City, Georgia, for 16 years. But when she showed up for Tuesday’s primary she was told to go to another school.

‘‘I expected to be able to vote,” said Gibson, 50, as she left the polling site. “I haven't received anything telling me that it changed.”

Gibson wasn’t the only voter confused when she arrived at the voting site. Ellana Richardson received a card in the mail telling her to vote at Gullatt Elementary even though she usually votes at another site.

“I don’t even live over here,” Richardson, 43, told USA TODAY. “I've never been here before. I had to Google this place.”

When she showed up, Richardson was also turned away at Gullatt Elementary because it wasn't her correct polling location. “This is only in the Black community,’’ she said. “You're not going to see this on TV.”

How voters fared in Georgia was the focus of much attention this week.

Georgia has been in the national spotlight because of its new election law and its critical role in presidential and congressional races. It was one of the first states to adopt more restrictive election laws in the wake of the 2020 presidential race.

Georgia voting law explained: Here's what to know about the state's election rules

Tuesday’s primary was the first major election, with congressional contests and a gubernatorial contest, since the law was enacted last summer.

Supporters of the law said it aims to protect against voter fraud and boost confidence in the integrity of the election system.

Voting rights groups argue the law aims to suppress voter turnout, particularly among voters of color. They point to problems Tuesday, including delays in opening some polling sites, some machines not working and voters confused about where to cast their ballots.

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“These are all red flags for November,” said Julie Houk, managing counsel for the nonpartisan Election Protection in the Voting Rights Project at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Houk said there’s already been a lot of fallout from the new law and “it's just the tip of the iceberg.”

Georgia election officials, however, contend the primary went smoothly and tout voter turnout that was on pace to set a record.

“It’s never been easier to vote in the state of Georgia as we’ve been saying for years now,’’ Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger told reporters Tuesday. “We just make sure that we have the appropriate guardrails so it’s tough to cheat.”

Georgia once again in the spotlight

Joe Biden narrowly defeated Donald Trump in Georgia's 2020 presidential race. The former president criticized Georgia election officials when Raffensperger refused to help him find enough votes to overturn the election.

Trump has also attacked Republican Gov. Brian Kemp because he refused to help reverse the election results.

In the aftermath of the contest, more GOP-led state legislatures, including Georgia, adopted restrictive election laws, which included restrictions on curbside voting and voting by mail, cutting back on early voting, limitations on ballot drop boxes and new identification requirements.

Efforts are still underway during the 2022 legislative session, where lawmakers in 39 states have considered at least 393 restrict­ive election bills, according to recent data from the Brennan Center for Justice.

A new 'Jim Crow era': Biden, civil rights leaders slam Georgia election reform

The Georgia law, SB 202, among other things, requires a photo ID to vote absentee by mail, cuts the period to request an absentee ballot and places limits on ballot drop boxes. It would also give more control over election officials to the state Legislature and makes it illegal for groups within a certain distance to hand out food and water to voters online.

The Justice Department sued Georgia over the new law, arguing it restricts Black voters’ access to the polls. The agency declined to comment about the impact on voters during Tuesday’s primary because of the pending lawsuit.

More than 850,000 Georgians voted through May 20 in person or by an absentee ballot, according to the secretary of state’s office. That was a 168% increase compared to 2018’s gubernatorial primary and a 212% increase over 2020’s presidential primary.

Raffensperger attributed the high turnout in part to the post-COVID vaccine environment, the readiness of election officials and the new law, which added an additional day of early voting.

“The record early voting turnout is a testament to the security of the voting system and the hard work of our county election officials,” said Raffensperger.

Bad night for Trump: Kemp, Raffensperger win GA primaries, Brooks in Ala Senate runoff: live updates

Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor, disputed Republican claims that the election law did not lead to voter suppression.

“It's correlation without causation,” Abrams said. “We know that increased turnout has nothing to do with suppression. Suppression is about whether or not you make it difficult for voters to access the ballot.”

She said several voters were frustrated Tuesday.

“We know that across the state voters are still facing difficulties,'' Abrams said. "And this is just the primary.’’

Poll workers helped voters check in at the Robert Howard Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park in Georgia on Tuesday May 24, 2022.
Poll workers helped voters check in at the Robert Howard Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park in Georgia on Tuesday May 24, 2022.

Some voters faced barriers at the polls

In some counties, there were no reports of problems, but several had significant problems, including polls not opening on time because electronic devices with voter information weren't working, said Houk of the Lawyers’ Committee.

Some polling sites had to extend hours.

There were nearly 200 calls to a national voter hotline run by a coalition of advocacy groups, including the Lawyers’ Committee. Many callers were confused about their polling sites, which in some cases had been changed because of redistricting, Houk said.

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‘’That's one of the biggest concerns about making sure voters get to their correct polling place on Election Day in Georgia because otherwise they stand (a chance of) being disenfranchised,’’ she said.

The hotline also received calls from voters who said they had registered but were told otherwise when they showed up or were told they were removed from the registration list.

Voting wasn’t as chaotic as it was in 2020, but there was a lot of uncertainly and confusion stirred up by the new law, said LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a nonprofit voting rights group.

“People had a lot of anxiety around what they could and couldn't do. What people know is that they're under attack,’’ said Brown, who voted in Atlanta. “That's part of what I think the Republican’s goal was - to actually make people feel like they're under constant scrutiny or attack.”

Brown said she’s not surprised by the high turnout. Her group and others worked to educate voters about the new law.

‘‘We saw the impact. We felt it on the ground,’’ she said. “What it did do, though, it did require us to have to spend more time and energy educating people.’’

Republicans tout new election laws

Republicans defend the new election laws, including Georgia’s, and point to the high voter turnout Tuesday as proof the changes helped.

Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell said the laws brought a “torrent of hysteria’’ from the far left, corporate America and Hollywood.

“We are seeing the hard evidence, as we all knew, the hysteria was never based on fact to begin with,” he said Tuesday on the Senate floor. “The fake hysteria was just a pretext to push a sweeping national takeover of election laws.”

Sweeping federal election legislation proposed by Democrats have stalled in Congress.

Battle for the GOP's soul: In Georgia, the Brian Kemp-David Perdue primary has turned into a Donald Trump-Mike Pence feud

There was also criticism in 2005 when Georgia passed a voter photo ID law, but there was record turnout in the years following, said Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

He criticized President Joe Biden and others who likened Georgia’s new election law to those passed during the Jim Crow era.

“The fact that people were able to vote easily totally shows that the criticisms of the election reform, saying it’s somehow like being in Jim Crow, (that) the claims are totally off base,'' von Spakovsky said adding that critics "are now going to be eating crow.’’

He called the unusually high voter turnout during a nonpresidential year “remarkable.”

“This isn’t a one-time thing,’’ he said. “This is the same thing that has happened in other states.’’

Robert Halvorsen, 92, casts his vote at First Baptist Church of Augusta in Georgia on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
Robert Halvorsen, 92, casts his vote at First Baptist Church of Augusta in Georgia on Tuesday, May 24, 2022.

Advocates gearing up for November

Voting rights advocates said the problems were real Tuesday.

At one precinct in DeKalb County, election workers briefly switched to using paper ballots early Tuesday after a machine malfunction.

Sean Kennedy had planned to vote at the polling station in the Avondale Estates City Hall, but opted instead to go to work and return later after seeing the line caused by the outage.

“My wife already voted so I feel bad if I chicken out and don’t do it,” Kennedy said.

Erik Burton, a county elections spokesperson, said the incident was isolated and that election workers followed protocols before returning to regular voting.

Lollie Dixon, 67, a poll worker at the Gullatt Elementary school, said many disappointed elderly people told her they didn’t want to vote after the confusion at polling locations.

“We have had over maybe 100 people trying to vote today and we had to steer them away because they changed the location,” Dixon said. “And they didn't tell anybody they changed the location.”

Stephanie Jackson Ali, policy director for New Georgia Project Action Fund, said voting problems happening in Union City were not unusual.

“We have seen a lot of issues today that are tied to both SB 202 and to the redistricting process, which was done very late and in an odd way by the Republicans this year,” said Ali.

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Ali said late redistricting efforts have caused voters in mass to go to the wrong precinct and alleged that the secretary of the state’s website did not have accurate precinct locations. With the new law barring volunteers from within 150 feet of a polling site, many people were cautious about coming too close for fear of breaking the law.

“Voters are just leaving without voting because they don't know where to go,’’ said Ali. “And we're seeing that across the state, especially in our large metro areas.”

Tomeka Wilkins was among those unable to vote at Gullatt Elementary. She said she had looked up her polling site and was directed there.

But when she arrived she was told instead to go to Ronald Bridges Park, where she has voted for the past 25 years. “I've never voted here. I've always [gone] to the park,” said Wilkins, 44.

For nearly three hours, USA TODAY watched many voters who showed up at Gullatt Elementary be directed to another polling place.

“It makes me feel like they are trying to keep the Black community from voting so that way we don't have a voice,” Wilkins said. “But it ain't gonna happen today. I'm gonna go to the right poll to vote.”

More: Laws aimed at voter suppression are ‘the worst’ since Jim Crow. How Black voter trends could be impacted.

Teresa Newton shouted to passing cars as they pulled into the Robert Howard Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park in Hephzibah, Georgia, on Tuesday May 24, 2022
Teresa Newton shouted to passing cars as they pulled into the Robert Howard Community Center at Diamond Lakes Regional Park in Hephzibah, Georgia, on Tuesday May 24, 2022

Madan Simha, a community organizer with the legal advocacy organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said he checked multiple voter profiles on the secretary of state’s website verifying they were supposed to vote at Gullatt Elementary even though they were sent to another polling location.

“There's a lot to be learned in terms of the law itself because the pace at which the Georgia Legislature has changed the law in the last two years has been frightening in scale and in magnitude,” said Simha.

Simha has heard from several people and organizations who are confused about what is allowed under the law.

“It's very unreasonable to expect a voter to navigate the context of this legal landscape,” he added. “This sort of thing will have a chilling effect on voters.”

Deborah Scott, executive director of the civic engagement group Georgia STAND UP, said her organization worked to help solve problems in real-time Tuesday so voters wouldn’t be turned away or turned off.

‘’We don't want that to be the narrative coming back to the community of ‘Here we go again…Why do we keep coming out to vote and then they keep messing with us? ’’ Scott said.

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Ahead of the primary, Scott’s organization dropped off voter education brochures to more than 42,000 households in regions across the state. The group and others will ramp up get-out-the-vote efforts for upcoming elections, including the June 21 runoff.

“All eyes will be on Georgia again,’’ said Scott of the November election, which she said will be a circus. “It’s incumbent upon people to watch what's happening in Georgia to prevent it from happening in other places.”

Simha said organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice will need to add caveats to voter protection and education programs about what voters might face.

“That should never have to be a thing in the first place,” said Simha. “Nobody should have to be told, ‘Hey, come to this location and you might be told actually you got to go five miles to a different location. And then present your same problem over here.’”

“That shouldn't happen in a democracy like the United States.”

Contributing: Catherine Buchaniec of Medill News Service

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Some Georgia voters turned away from polls during Tuesday primaries